Wednesday 12 October 2016

An Old-Fashioned Girl, or What We Taught Girls in the 1860s

The Secret Victorianist recently read 1869 novel An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott (of Little Women fame).

In her Preface, Alcott wrote of the story’s didacticism:

The Old-Fashioned Girl is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be - a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another.

What then ‘should’ a girl be and do to maintain domestic happiness, according to this nineteenth-century writer? Below are five lessons that Alcott and her heroine, Polly, taught me.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

1. She shouldn’t go to theatre

Fourteen-year-old Polly is scandalised when she is taken to a play with suggestive humour and beguiling actresses:

"I know it wasn't proper for little girls to see, or I shouldn't have been so ashamed!" cried sturdy Polly, perplexed, but not convinced, even by Mrs. Smythe Perkins.

"I think you are right, my dear; but you have lived in the country, and haven't yet learned that modesty has gone out of fashion." And with a good-night kiss, grandma left Polly to dream dreadfully of dancing in jockey costume, on a great stage; while Tom played a big drum in the orchestra; and the audience all wore the faces of her father and mother, looking sorrowfully at her, with eyes like saucers, and faces as red as Fanny's sash.

2. She shouldn’t lose her temper

Polly is (predictably) skilled in the kitchen but doesn’t lose her cool when her friend’s brother/her own future husband eats the fruits of her labour.

Polly was not a model girl by any means, and had her little pets and tempers like the rest of us; but she didn't fight, scream, and squabble with her brothers and sisters in this disgraceful way, and was much surprised to see her elegant friend in such a passion. "Oh, don't! Please, don't! You'll hurt her, Tom! Let him go, Fanny! It's no matter about the candy; we can make some more!" cried Polly, trying to part them, and looking so distressed, that they stopped ashamed, and in a minute sorry that she should see such a display of temper.

3. She should notice others’ failings but only correct them by example

Polly manages to transform the Shaw household but rarely by expressing her opinion.

Polly wished the children would be kinder to grandma; but it was not for her to tell them so, although it troubled her a good deal, and she could only try to make up for it by being as dutiful and affectionate as if their grandma was her own.

4. She should exercise, but not to display herself

Polly’s pursuits are entirely wholesome (the antithesis of novels).

Another thing that disturbed Polly was the want of exercise…At home, Polly ran and rode, coasted and skated, jumped rope and raked hay, worked in her garden and rowed her boat; so no wonder she longed for something more lively than a daily promenade with a flock of giddy girls, who tilted along in high-heeled boots, and costumes which made Polly ashamed to be seen with some of them. So she used to slip out alone sometimes, when Fanny was absorbed in novels, company, or millinery, and get fine brisk walks round the park, on the unfashionable side, where the babies took their airings; or she went inside, to watch the boys coasting, and to wish she could coast too, as she did at home. She never went far, and always came back rosy and gay.

5. She should love in silence

As an adult, Polly suffers silently with her love for Tom throughout his engagement to another and his lengthy absence after going west. Her modesty is so extreme that she never actively confesses it, even to her friend, and it's not even made overt in the narration.

"Polly, is it Tom?"

Poor Polly was so taken by surprise, that she had not a word to say. None were needed; her telltale face answered for her, as well as the impulse which made her hide her head in the sofa cushion, like a foolish ostrich when the hunters are after it.

No novels, no plays and no opinions, a foolish ostrich who cannot escape her own desire to wed – that’s what we taught girls then. What do we teach them today?

What nineteenth-century novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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